Inaction of ‘leaders’ leaves kids vulnerable to sex abuse

Steven “Stevo” Johnson remembers standing at the corner barbershop at Cayuga Street and Jefferson Avenue, just a few doors away from his grandmother’s house. He and a friend regularly hung out there as boys, collecting cans from the sidewalk trash can as fast as patrons threw them in.

“It was our little hustle,” Stevo recalled in a tone that could be mistaken for fondness.

A family friend that Johnson knew from the neighborhood pulled over one day. He said he had extra cans for him in his car. Johnson got in. But there weren’t any cans. Then the man said he had money instead. Suddenly, everything seemed wrong.

I have to get out of the car, have get out of the car, Stevo recalled chanting to himself.

Doors locked. Terror mounted as Johnson watched the front door of his grandmother’s house get smaller and disappear. The car stopped at an isolated location a short distance away. The sexual attack began.

“Everything that could have happened to me happened,” he said.

Stevo was 7.

When he was finally released, stewing in pain and confusion, Johnson had no way of understanding what had just happened to him. It took years for him to grow up and to piece together all the ways his innocence had been destroyed. Since then, he has gone public with his story to help others avoid the same fate.

Far more children are sexually assaulted than adults – at least one out of every 10, according to both national research and local youth health surveys.

Yet few, if any, campaigns exist in Buffalo schools or neighborhoods to prevent it. Even the use of publicly available tools like the New York State Sex Offender Registry are subject to debate in a city that is home to more than 600 convicted and registered molesters. Instead of proactive notification when a sex offender moves nearby, or public advocacy by school, police and community leaders, violated children are too often left to suffer the consequences in silence.

“Nobody wants to take on the responsibility of educating or talking about this subject matter, period, because it’s so personal,” Johnson said. “How could you sweep everything under the carpet and leave these kids to fend for themselves?”

No child is immune from sexual abuse. The underreported crime crosses all geographic and socioeconomic lines. In most cases, this crime is the ultimate act of betrayal because children often know – and trust – their abusers.

But not every child is at equal risk. Studies indicate that children from single-parent or no-parent families are more likely to be victims. So are children from poor families and children who are black.

Those heightened risk factors apply to thousands of city children, many of whom attend Buffalo Public Schools. In the most recent health risk survey of Buffalo high school students, 10 percent said they’d first had sex before the age of 13. And 8 percent reported being raped. While the majority of that group were girls, nearly a third were boys.

These children are at much higher risk for academic failure and delinquency, and for physical and mental health problems as adults.

Yet while high-profile child-beating death cases have refocused local attention on the broader issue of child abuse, the crime of sexual abuse continues to be overlooked by stakeholders who have the power to stop it.

“This is why more people are hurting,” Johnson said, “than are helped.”

Lack of notification

Stephanie Johnson was raped when she was 5, taken from her kindergarten classroom.

Unlike her cousin Stevo, who only remembers his attack in fleeting snatches and flashbacks, Stephanie remembers every minute of that day and, like him, has chosen to go public. She remembers the 15-year-old boy who held her hand and walked with her a couple of blocks until they reached a vacant house and climbed the stairs to where a mattress lay.

“You could tell he’d taken other kids there,” she said, her dull eyes sad and unfocused. “He raped me. I can remember like it was yesterday.”

Now 39, she routinely calls up the online photos and profiles of every registered sex offender in the neighborhood and studies his picture. She rarely leaves her younger children when they aren’t in school and only trusts a few family members with their care in her absence.

She worries that other parents don’t think to do the same and is troubled that schools and police do so little to educate parents and children about the insidious nature of sex abuse crimes.

In contrast to some suburban districts, which have fewer registered sex offenders and either post Web updates or mail home letters about sex offender locations or moves, neither the Buffalo Public Schools nor the Buffalo Police Department proactively issue notices to parents about where offenders live. They note that the law does not require it and that the Internet makes the state registry directly accessible to everyone.

With more than 600 registered sex offenders who regularly change addresses, they add, proactive notice is impractical and may provide a false sense of security. The West Seneca school district, for instance, stopped sending home letters to parents because the sex offender information provided by police was usually outdated by the time it was mailed out.

But parents and community activists look at the number of sex offenders in Buffalo and make the opposite argument. They say many registered sex offenders are like drug dealers, congregating in the city’s weakest neighborhoods, among community centers, schools and day cares.

Take the neighborhood where Stevo grew up, which encompasses the Schiller and Martin Luther King parks, Genesee Moselle, and parts of the Emerson and Grider neighborhoods. More than 100 registered sex offenders currently live in that ZIP code, according to a Buffalo News analysis. Of that number, more than 60 percent were convicted of a crime involving a minor.

Dozens of registered offenders live within the 0.7-mile student walking radius of Harvey Austin Elementary School 97, for instance. Many reside in a string of halfway houses dotting Bailey Avenue.

Locally crafted laws aimed at keeping sex offenders away from places where children gather have been struck down by the state Court of Appeals. State law allows the most-serious offenders to be banned from living within 1,000 feet of a school or child care facility, but only for as long as the offender is on probation or parole.

Parent advocate Samuel L. Radford III said the families who live there need the greatest support, but they don’t get it because many key school district stakeholders – teachers, administrators, police officers and counselors – don’t live in the city.

“If there is a sex offender in and around a school that my children walk to, or that my children go by, then I want to know about it,” he said. “Notify me, and use the same protocol that you would want for your own children.”

The bigger picture

Few law enforcement officials or child advocates believe registered sex offender notification is enough to keep children safe. Reducing this crime also requires public education and advocacy.

They point to the most relevant truth about child molesters: Between 75 percent and 90 percent are known to their child victims.

“Ninety percent of children are sexually abused by someone they know, someone they trust, and someone they may love,” said Judith Olin, executive director of the Lee Gross Anthone Child Advocacy Center, a program of Child and Adolescent Treatment Services in Buffalo.

Of the 200 to 300 allegations of sex crimes against children reported to Buffalo police each year, only a handful involve a registered offender, said Lt. David Mann, head of the city’s Sex Offense Squad.

Parent and child advocates say the Buffalo school district is best positioned to play a strong role in preventing sexual abuse. But it doesn’t.

District officials acknowledge they have no curriculum to help parents and children understand the dangers of sexual predators and only began posting a link to the state’s sex offender registry a few weeks ago, when The Buffalo News began researching this story. The district does issue notifications to parents when police and school officials learn that strangers are approaching schoolchildren.

But that’s not enough for parents and victims like Stephanie, whose belief is based on bitter experience. She was in kindergarten when her rapist, who shared the same common last name, walked into her classroom at School 31 at the end of the day and claimed to be her uncle. Though Stephanie told her teacher she didn’t know the young man, her teacher overlooked district policy and let him take her.

“Afterwards, I remember he told me, ‘You better not tell nobody’ or he would kill me,” she said.

Meanwhile, her mother, a nurse’s aide, had arrived at School 31 to pick her daughter up. That’s when the teacher realized her mistake.

Police eventually found Stephanie crying alone at the corner of Watson and Peckham streets. They returned the girl to her parents, but Stephanie was too distraught to tell anyone what had happened until after she was home. That’s when Stephanie went to the bathroom and discovered she was bleeding in her underwear.

She called her mother, who rushed in, took one look and wept.

A damaged life

Some children who suffer sexual abuse recover. Some never do.

“A lot of it depends on the child, and a lot of it depends on the type of abuse,” said Olin, director of the Child Advocacy Center, where children who allege sexual abuse are interviewed by police and receive special, age-appropriate treatment and services.

According to research gathered by the child abuse prevention organization Darkness to Light, victims of sexual abuse are at greater risk for doing poorly in school and suffering a wide range of physical and mental illnesses as they grow older. They are also more likely to commit criminal acts.

For Stevo, a fashion designer and event planner, the road to recovery was hard. He became more aloof and distrustful, more sensitive and targeted by bullies in an urban culture that values toughness among males.

Suffering with bouts of depression and other family issues, he picked up a butcher knife when he was 25 and considered ending his own life until he heard the song “My Life” from R&B/hip-hop artist Mary J. Blige and decided to place his faith in God.

Though now a fashion designer who shared his story on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2010 and a year later in Ebony Magazine, Johnson has struggled with his weight, once exceeding 300 pounds. He’s even lavished money on sunglasses after being told by an acquaintance that his eyes betrayed a troubled soul. Though he’s enjoyed career successes, he still wrestles with the belief that deep down, he’s broken.

“Every day, it’s a fight,” said Stevo, 40. “It’s a fight for respect, a fight for independence. It’s a fight for survival.”

Everyone’s burden

That’s why victims and activists want school leaders to do more to address child sexual abuse. That’s the easiest first step.

“Don’t give me a plan that’s going to take me a year to do, and not do what you can do tomorrow,” said Radford, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “Let’s use the sex offender registry until we’ve got something better.”

Many agree, however, that school district leaders aren’t the only ones who need to step up. So do community and religious leaders. So do parents.

“Will your child tell you if a coach that you trust, and your child trusts, slowly grooms them and then abuses that trust?” said Mann, the lieutenant. And if they do, he added, will you know how to deal with that information?

Keyon Lee, the co-owner of City Swagg Fashions on the Lower West Side, read about Stevo’s story in Ebony magazine in 2011. He started a small online support group and wrote his own fictional story about victimized children last year. Since then, he’s come across many women and men who shared their terrible burden with him, often for the first time in their adult lives.

He and others believe educators, politicians, and church and community leaders have remained disturbingly silent on the matter.

That’s not the way it should be, Stevo agreed.

“We can’t have the pillars of the community not addressing these things,” he said. “Sexual predators go free because of silence.”